Picture book art a major draw

A sweet taste of childhood, Megan Doherty writes

When Look! The art of Australian picture books debuted at the State Library of Victoria, almost 100,000 people went to see the exhibition.

It is one thing to see and love an image in a favourite children's book. It is another to see it displayed large in a gallery in its original form.

Shaun Tan, illustration from <em>The Rabbits</em>, text by John Marsden, Lothian, Hachette Australia, 1998, oil on ...
Shaun Tan, illustration from The Rabbits, text by John Marsden, Lothian, Hachette Australia, 1998, oil on canvas, courtesy of the artist 

''People absolutely loved it,'' the exhibition's curator, Mike Shuttleworth, says.

The exhibition celebrates the 2012 National Year of Reading by showing 120 original artwork, sketches and drawings by more than 40 Australian illustrators including Bob Graham, Jeannie Baker, Ann James, Shaun Tan, Graeme Base, Leigh Hobbs and Terry Denton.

The exhibition features picture books from the past 10 years, with favourites such as Are we there yet?, The Arrival, Old Tom's Holiday, Greetings from Sandy Beach, Fox and Enigma.

Look! is now touring eastern Australia and the Canberra Museum and Gallery has the exhibition on show now until June 10.

Shuttleworth was seconded from the State Library of Victoria's Centre for Youth Literature to curate the exhibition. (He's now the program manager for the Melbourne Writers Festival. ''I've graduated to work with grown-ups,'' he says, with a laugh).

It took him almost three years to complete the show, working with exhibition manager Anat Meiri.

''We looked at hundreds of books and certainly many hundreds of finished artworks and then probably selected 350 which we cut down to the 120 that are in the show,'' he says.

''The working title of the show was Growing Up and, in selecting the works, we really wanted to reflect to the audience the experience of childhood and the life events that children might go through as they grow older.''

The exhibition is deliberately contemporary, showing works from the past 10 years, with some borrowed from the Lu Rees Archives of Australian Children's Literature at the University of Canberra, including an image from Lucy Goosey by Ann James, used in much of the promotion.

''Most of the work came from artists and illustrators themselves - from their studios, from their sheds, from the top of their cupboards, from under their beds,'' Shuttleworth says.

''I had the good fortune to visit quite a number of the illustrators and to look at the original work as they pulled it out of the folders. Because for some of them, there is a secondary market for the work but for a lot of them there's not really. So often work that has taken a lot of creativity to conceive and execute lives on in the book but this is a chance to show what these people can really do.''

The exhibition is child-friendly. The work is hung lower than the average - about 30cm lower than usual. ''So it's comfortable for children and not uncomfortable for adults,'' Shuttleworth says.

The accompanying text also includes a question for the child. ''The text is designed to provoke inquiry and stimulate a discussion perhaps between the adult viewer and a child viewer, much as happens when you're reading a picture book,'' he says.

Shuttleworth says it is surprising that little of the work was digitally created, the artists crafting their beautiful, quirky and often heart-rending images more often with pen, paint and paper. And despite their different stories, the books had similar themes. ''Subject-wise, it's what they've always been - about the emotional lives and imaginative lives and the real lives of children and it's amazing how well picture books communicate these things, often very subtly, sometimes metaphorically, but the best of them do it very powerfully,'' he says.

Shuttleworth's favourite objects in the exhibition are the notebooks of Bob Graham, who works from the front room of his home in Hawthorn, creating much-loved images for books such as Greetings from Sandy Beach. ''They are things of beauty,'' he says. ''They have so much life in them and so much tenderness and so much Bob in them. They are just wonderful things.''

Despite the love people have for picture books, Shuttleworth believes the artwork can still be taken for granted. The exhibition hopes to correct that.

''There's something about the book production process, sometimes it enriches it but sometimes I think it lets it down a little bit,'' he says ''So works [in real life] like Freya Blackwood's images of children at play and Rachel Tonkin's extraordinary landscapes are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.'' Shaun Tan has images in the exhibition from his book The Arrival. There is also his oil painting of the cover for The Rabbits by John Marsden and another image from his book Tales from Outer Suburbia. All precursors to him winning an Academy Award last year for best animated short film for The Lost Thing, adapted from the book of the same name. Dr Belle Alderman, emeritus professor of children's literature and collections development manager at the Lu Rees Archives, says books such as Tan's have won prizes around the world. And that's not unusual for Australian authors and illustrators.

''Even though the US and Britain publish 30 times more children's books than Australia does, which is around 700 children's books a year, we're still winning their top awards as well as the international ones,'' she says.

''In a field of huge competitiveness, Australia's children's books I think are unique, they're outstanding, they're hugely creative. The authors and illustrators take chances.''

Alderman says children's books and their authors and illustrators are invaluable.

''Through their stories, in written and illustrated form, we as readers and viewers, gain insights into our collective hearts and souls,'' she says.

Look! Curator Mike Shuttleworth will give a floor talk at the Canberra Museum and Gallery tomorrow at 12.30pm. Look! will be on at CMAG until June 10.